The Daily Iowan, April 30, 2013, p. 4
Dave Parsons’ opinion column urged that we “Vote Yes for the justice center” (DI, April 29). He is a member of the committee actively pushing the proposal. As such, his was a commendably civil, best effort to make the most of his unpersuasive case.
University of Iowa students have a stake in this May 7 bond election, and hopefully, they will vote. Justice-center proponents start from a false premise: Opponents don’t understand the need for improvements in our justice-system facilities and procedures.
Not one of my acquaintances opposes the May 7 ballot proposition for that reason. Indeed, quite the contrary. Few, if any, even object to spending whatever taxpayer money we truly need.
No, the dispute doesn’t involve whether we need “something” — for reasons Parsons skillfully set forth.
The dispute is what that “something” should be, how much of it we need, where it should be located, and what reforms in incarceration avoidance should accompany new construction.
I’m not a member of either the “Yes” or the “No” committees. I just want to plan what we need, substantively and procedurally, and do it right, while not making things worse. Like the cable guy says, “let’s get ’er done” — get Johnson County voters to “Yes.”
Fundamental “getting to ‘yes’” strategy involves recognizing the distinction between parties’ “positions” and “interests.” Proponents and opponents share an “interest” in fixing the system. It’s the proponents’ “position” that’s caused the problem.
Proponents’ second logical failing is constructing a position on a conclusion that doesn’t follow from their premises: (1) The Courthouse and jail need fixing; (2) We have a detailed specific plan for doing that; (3) Therefore, everyone must vote for our specific plan.
As a law professor might respond to a student’s similarly faulty argument, “I follow you all but the ‘therefore.’” A need for “something” does not, “therefore,” compel adoption of their proposal.
Proponents’ stance is reminiscent of the late, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, sometimes called “TINA” because of her response to opponents who proposed alternatives to her policies: “There Is No Alternative” (TINA).
It’s like the line from the country song, “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.” “That’s our proposal, and we’re sticking to it.” There is no alternative.
Landfills used to be like that. When one filled, there was no alternative to creating more. Today’s acceptance of alternatives — such as recycling and composting — has saved hundreds of acres of farmland.
America leads the world in jail and prison cells. That doesn’t mean, when ours fill up, “there is no alternative” to just building more.
It is no less offensive to attach a big-box modern structure to our National Historic Register, 100-year-old Courthouse — as proponents suggest — than attaching a similar structure to the Old Capitol.
Here’s one of many alternatives:
Many find a detached, stand-alone criminal justice facility more sensible and efficient — sheriff, judges, courts, and jail in one place. Proponents claim it won’t work. Apparently, they failed to tell that to the numerous Iowa counties that have already done it and like it. In fact it’s what we did when we needed more County administrative space: the separate administrative building an easy walk down the street.
This has the added benefits of preserving the integrity of the Courthouse exterior and setting, providing more space inside exclusively for civil proceedings, and avoids plopping a bunch of criminals in jail cells in the center of a downtown area the City would like to develop for tourists and residential use.
If the bond issue passes this time, “that’s all she wrote.” We’ll have to live with a desecrated Courthouse and other consequences. But if it’s defeated May 7 maybe, like Goldilocks’ porridge tasting, the third time they’ll get it right.
There are alternatives.
University of Iowa College of Law
Something I failed to include in this Daily Iowan column is a response to the proponents' argument that we should build their Justice Center first, and then think about alternative procedures, future trends, "peak-load" analysis (with the associated comparative costs of renting cells), and what our actual need for jail cells will be.
It reminds me of a School Board session during the years I was serving. A proposed new school was on the agenda. I had earlier wanted us to explore alternative approaches to school crowding (such as the recommendations of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year) and teaching (such as team teaching with block scheduling) that would have an impact on both school size and design. The other Board members wanted to go immediately to an architect and ask the architect what we needed. I responded, "You know, normally before you go to the architect you know whether you want her or him to design you a courthouse or an outhouse."
Many of the opponents' suggested alternatives (involving such things as cash bail, priorities for arrests, sentencing, dealing with recidivism, and treatment of those with mental illness, among many more) can have an enormous impact on the number of needed jail cells and the design of the facility.
Following that, there is a basic peak load analysis to be done that I have not seen referred to so far, let alone run and resolved. That involves looking at our costs of incarcerating prisoners here compared with putting them in other counties' jails. There has at least been an assertion that it's actually marginally cheaper to put them elsewhere. That's not necessarily a reason to do it. There are benefits to inmates, their lawyers and families to having them here. But it does affect the peak load question.
Once we agree on the reduction in need as a result of alternative approaches we can project what the maximum daily occupancy will be in any given year, and how many days it will reach that level. We are then left to address: how many days a year do we want to be able to keep all our inmates in a Johnson County facility? How many days a year -- 5? 50? -- does it make more economic sense, on balance, to ship an agreed upon percentage -- 3%?, 10%? -- elsewhere. In other words, how many cells are we willing to build and pay for, knowing that they (like the rooms in a motel) will be empty a giver percentage of the days every year?
The result of that analysis is essential before even designing a facility, let alone building it. (For that reason, it may be somewhere in the proponents' documents, which I confess to not having read and memorized in their entirety.)
What follows is my online comment in response to a Press-Citizen May 1 editorial, which is reproduced following my comment.
As much as I admire what the Press-Citizen has contributed to civic journalism on the Justice Center issues, I cannot agree with this editorial's conclusion. See, "There Are Alternatives; Getting to 'Yes' by Voting 'No' On Justice Center," http://fromdc2iowa.blogspot.com/2013/04/there-are-alternatives.html
From my lifetime of experience (yours may be different) I haven't found granting requests now, in exchange for promises of doing better in the future, to work out very well (e.g., "take me back, and I promise I'll never have another drink"; "I know I haven't paid you back that last loan, but if only you'll give me this one more loan I swear I'll start paying you back the first of next month").
Proponents' syllogism goes like this: (1) The courthouse needs fixing, the jail needs expanding; (2) We have a specific plan to fix that; (3) "Therefore," you must vote for our specific plan or forever be judged a naysayer. "There Are No Alternatives" (Margaret Thatcher's "TINA.")
That's the logic underpinning the op ed of the charismatic and able Mike Carberry in this paper today, and the League of Women Voters column in this morning's Gazette.
My response? "I follow you all but the 'therefore.'" In fact, there ARE alternatives, as Jeff Cox explains in his column this morning -- and they are alternatives that can have an impact on what we need to do and build. Contrary to the editorial, surely it's worth another 6 months before spending $40 million-plus on something we'll be living with for the next 30 years.
The proponents keep itemizing the need. That's a false issue, a straw man. Virtually everyone agrees "something" is needed. The issue is not whether we need "something" different from what we now have. The issue is what that "something" ought to be, how much of it we truly need, where it should be located, and what incarceration reduction efforts will accompany that design and construction.
"There Are Alternatives," http://fromdc2iowa.blogspot.com/2013/04/there-are-alternatives.html is a response to the proponents' argument that we should build their Justice Center first, and THEN think about alternative procedures, future trends, "peak-load" analysis (with the associated comparative costs of renting cells), and what our actual need for jail cells will be.
Proponents have it precisely -- but it's precisely backwards. This is a time, and opportunity, to be truly creative and innovative in response to our challenges, not to knee-jerk vote "Yes" for the first plan to come along, based on an assumption that if we are putting more people in jail the only alternative is to go on doing what we've been doing and just build more jail cells. We need to fix and plan first, then design and build.
We don't respond to overflowing landfills by taking more farm land out of production, rationalizing that "there is no alternative" to building more landfills. We think, we innovate, we recycle, we compost (see, among hundreds of others, the Gazette's page-one story this morning, "Road Map for Reducing Waste"). Can't we be equally creative with the jail challenge?
Many of the opponents' suggested alternatives can have an enormous impact on the number of needed jail cells and the design of the facility.
Following an evaluation of those alternatives, there is a basic peak load analysis to be done that I have not seen referred to so far (at least in local newspapers' coverage), let alone run and resolved.
(It involves, but is not decided by, looking at our costs of incarcerating prisoners here compared with putting them in other counties' jails. There has at least been an assertion that it's actually marginally cheaper to put inmates elsewhere. That's not necessarily a reason to do it. There are benefits to inmates, their lawyers, and families to having them here. But it does affect the peak load question.)
Peak load analysis. Once we agree on the impact on need of alternative approaches, we can project what the MAXIMUM day's occupancy will be in any given year, and how many days a year it will reach that level. We are then left to address: how many days a year do we want to be able to keep ALL our inmates in a Johnson County facility? How many days a year does it make more economic sense, on balance, to ship an agreed upon percentage -- 3%?, 10%? -- elsewhere; 5 days a year, 50 days? In other words, how many cells are we willing to build and pay for, knowing that they (like the rooms in a motel) will be empty a giver percentage of the days every year?
For example, if the largest overflow occurs because of drunks on football weekends, we certainly don't need to build and maintain empty jail cells 365 days a year for THAT purpose.
Answering those peak load questions is essential before even designing a facility, let alone building it.
Let's get this one right. There ARE alternatives.
Iowa City Press-Citizen
May 1, 2013, p. A12
As a newspaper editorial board, our natural inclination is to side with those who are fighting against the power structure.
• To fight for those who have documented how about 40 percent of the people in the custody of the jail on any given day are black when blacks make up only 5 percent of the county population.
• To champion the causes of those who point out how the jail population has grown five-fold over the past 30 years while the county population has grown only by about 150 percent.
• To back those who are working to reduce the number of university students who graduate with a non-violent drug or alcohol charge on their record in addition to the one, two or three majors that they’ve managed to complete.
But we think those struggles should continue in conjunction with — not in opposition to — the new justice center being proposed.
If you removed every single black inmate from the responsibility of the Johnson County jail, the sheriff’s office would still be responsible every day for farming out overflow inmates to neighboring county jails
If you removed everyone charged with marijuana possession alone — as opposed to in conjunction with domestic assault, driving under the influence or some other charge — it would have almost no effect on the daily population of the Johnson County Jail.
Back in 1981, county officials caved to public pressure and requested a bond for a 46-person jail that in no way met the county’s needs for an inmate population. And even worse, the county agreed to a design that didn’t include options for expansion.
In 1993, the jail inspector allowed the county to double bunk inmates and thus increase the jail’s total bed population to 92 — even though everything within the jail was designed for half that number.
The overcrowding finally reached a boiling point in the late 1990s, and the sheriff’s office tried to make a case then for why a larger jail was needed. Unfortunately, the sheriff and other supporters failed to show that they were interested in finding jail alternatives for non-violent offenders who offer no risk to the public.
In hindsight, their proposal deserved the nearly 2-1 trouncing it received at the polls in 2000.
But that 13-year-old bond issue is very different from the recent proposals for a justice center that will address the problems of a grossly overcrowded jail as well as the space, security and accessibility concerns of a century old courthouse.
And especially since Lonny Pulkrabek was elected in 2004, the sheriff’s office has been working with the county attorney and others to establish credible, workable, successful jail diversion and alternative programs.
Some opponents of the current justice center proposal suggest the county officials should separate the jail component from the courthouse and then find the additional money and political will required to build a larger jail on county land near the intersection of Melrose Avenue and Highway 218.
Other critics say that the most cost-efficient plan would involve tearing down the century-old county courthouse — a historic structure — selling the land and starting the planning process over.
But we’ve long supported the plans to purchase more land near the courthouse and build a joint justice center that would cut down enormously on the risks and costs involved with transporting jail inmates.
Other critics argue that the current plans for a justice center would detract from Iowa City’s plans for developing the Riverfront Crossings neighborhood. Yet MidWestOne Bank officials — knowing full well that a justice center is a likely possibility for the area — recently announced that they are looking to build south of Burlington Street.
Although we share many of the opponents’ concerns over the county’s incarceration rate, we don’t think this project should wait another six months or a year. Maintaining the status quo means that, any given day, about 50 Johnson County inmates are being farmed out to jails in neighboring counties. That costs the county in the neighborhood of $1 million a year — down from a high of $1.3 million in 2011.
The inmates who are farmed out don’t have ready access to their lawyers. Nor do they have ready access to their families or any other support system. And basic logistics say that the inmates who are going to be in the jail the longest are the ones who can be sent furthest away.
And the unfortunate truth is that some inmates with special needs actually might fare better in those other, larger jails because those facilities will have space for the programming that the Johnson County jail has no space to offer in the current jail.
We recognize that the odds are very much against county officials managing to muster 60 percent support for a necessary county service that most people would rather pretend doesn’t exist — or at least would rather pretend doesn’t affect them. But kudos to county officials for trying. And kudos to the 56 percent of county residents who voted “yes” for a slightly larger version of this proposal less than six months ago.
Tuesday’s election won’t have the presidential candidates on the ballot to help bring people out. But we still hope that those county residents who are interested in providing a more secure and safer environment for county employees — as well as for innocent-until-proven-guilty jail inmates — will come out and vote “yes.”
And then we hope, on Wednesday, proponents and opponents alike will continue to work on addressing concerns over the racial disparity among local incarceration rates and will continue to push for those jail alternative/diversion programs to be fully staffed and better funded.